Future Reflections         Summer 2011

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Growing Up in Macedonia

by Adrijana Prokopenko

Adrijana Prokopenko in her classroom.From the Editor: Each year more and more blind children come to the United States from overseas. Some arrive as adoptees, and others come as immigrants with their families. Their early experiences in the developing world are often quite different from those of blind children who begin life in the United States. In this article Adrijana Prokopenko describes her life growing up as a blind child in Macedonia.

I was born on February 2, 1979, in Skopje, Macedonia. I grew up in Skopje, and I also spent a great part of my childhood with my grandparents, who lived in the eastern part of the country. Macedonia is a small nation in eastern Europe. It has only about two million people. Until 1991 it was part of the former Yugoslavia. Macedonia is a developing nation, and it is undergoing many changes.

I was born three months premature, and I spent two and a half months in an incubator. The oxygen that helped keep me alive also damaged my eyes. I became blind due to a condition called retinopathy of prematurity (ROP).

As soon as my parents learned about my blindness, they called the national school for the blind, which was in our city. They talked to one of the teachers, who agreed to visit us and give my parents some tips about raising me. There was no early intervention program, so people tried to help each other in any way possible. They shared whatever knowledge they had about blindness.

I don't think I was even aware that I was blind when I was a small child. I was a lively, curious kid who did most of the things sighted kids do. I loved to ride my bike outside. I liked to play in the park, to run and exercise.

When I was old enough to start school, I went to the school for the blind that my parents had contacted. I had the same teacher who had visited me at home. It was great, because she knew me very well. I soon learned Braille and math. I started playing the piano and participated in extracurricular activities. Unfortunately, we never had instruction in orientation and mobility or classes on daily living skills. There was no instructor qualified to teach in those areas, so we had no chance to learn the basic skills of independence. Also, not much technology was available. We had no electronic equipment of any kind. I only had the Perkins Braillewriter. Even Braillers were hard to obtain and repair.

Adrijana’s student follows along in Braille as his teacher speaks.The students who came from other cities lived in the dormitory and went home on holidays. Because I lived in Skopje I was a day student. Students who had some sight were given many advantages at the school. They were encouraged to take part in extracurricular activities and to help in the dormitory and kitchen. The totally blind students were expected to study music and to read the small collection of Braille books we had available. It was rare for a totally blind student to get involved in sports or other extracurricular activities in the same way as partially sighted students. It only happened when initiated by a teacher or some other person.

A few of the teachers at the school were blind, and they were a great help to me. I talked to them about many things, and they became my second family.

When I was in fifth grade, I started to learn English. My English teacher was a wonderful role model, and I always felt happy in her class. She was always willing to help us, in class and outside. Knowing her, I realized that I wanted to be a teacher.

I practiced English by listening to the radio and TV. I became interested in learning how blind people lived in other parts of the world. I wanted to travel and experience life that is quite different from what we know here in Macedonia.

In 1998 I learned about a program for international students sponsored by the Overbrook School for the Blind in Philadelphia. By that time I had graduated from high school and completed my first year of university studies. I discovered that I met all of the criteria, and I was accepted into the program. I had heard many good things about education for the blind in the United States, and I was thrilled to have this opportunity.

My parents were very happy for me. They wanted me to have a bright future and to achieve my goals, and they realized that in our country I could not get the training I needed. I am sure that at times they worried about me and felt sad that they wouldn't be able to see me for a whole year. Still, they also knew that if they kept me here, they couldn't help me much and I wouldn't be pleased either.

I entered the Overbrook program in the fall of 1998. The program was designed to teach cane travel, assistive technology, and leadership skills. I also studied English and took part in choir and sports. The teachers challenged us and expected us to work hard, so we were busy most of the day.

There were ten international students in the program. My friends were all students from countries where blind people lived much as we did in Macedonia. I related to them easily from the beginning. We were there for each other at any time of the day or night. I loved my time in the United States, but I missed my family very much, especially around the holidays.

On the weekends we left Overbrook and stayed with host families in the Philadelphia area. At the end of the school year we took a trip to Washington, D.C. We planned the whole trip for the students and staff, from travel and accommodations to meals and sightseeing.

After a year at Overbrook I obtained a scholarship to study at Eastern Mediterranean University in Cyprus. I graduated from the English teaching department in 2003. When I returned to Macedonia I began looking for a job. Because I was blind, no one wanted to give me a chance. I went to countless interviews and was always turned down. Finally a friend of mine introduced me to another English teacher. Through her I found some private students who came to me a few hours a month, but I still needed a full-time job.

At last, in September 2006, I found a job at the school for the blind that I had attended as a child. I enjoy working there, and I do whatever I can to help my students.

Some things at the school have improved since I was a student there. The school recently acquired a Braille embosser, so we may soon have access to more books than ever before. However, there is still no trained staff to teach orientation and mobility, daily living skills, and similar specialized courses that are easily available to most blind people in the west. Without cane travel skills, it is very hard for blind people in Macedonia to travel independently.

The unemployment rate among blind Macedonians is very high, as much as 80 percent. Blind workers are unemployed because they are not qualified to hold jobs or because employers simply do not want to hire them. For this reason most blind people struggle financially. I have known very few blind people who marry and raise children.

Teaching blind students involves much more than teaching a particular subject. Each of my students is special in unique ways. Some want to become musicians or computer programmers. Some plan to be massage therapists or telephone operators; blind people in Macedonia have traditionally found work in these fields. I try to introduce my students to blind people who are working, and the students get very excited about these contacts. I hope that my students will have many opportunities that were not available when I was growing up. I hope they will not have to encounter the discrimination that was such an obstacle for me and for so many others.

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